SIREN SONGby Roberta Gellis
Cerridwen Press September 2009
ISBN (E Format) ISBN: 9781419921421
ISBN (Trade Paper) TBA
William of Marlowe and Elizabeth of Hurley had pledged their troth to each other when they were children. For both, however, their fathers had found better matches. Then mysteriously, Elizabeth’s father and two brothers died; Hurley was now hers and her husband, whose own estate was in ruins, brought her back to live. Marlowe was only across the river from Hurley and Elizabeth’s husband wanted to be William’s best friend, to marry his son to William’s daughter, to own Marlowe as well as Hurley.
Raymond d’Aix fled from the overprotective care of his mother to England where his uncle-by-marriage, King Henry, set him to unraveling an ugly rumor about William. Easily done for William was innocent, but having his answer Raymond still could not leave. Alys, William’s daughter was beautiful, but she was far more than that and Raymond was determined to have her as his wife. Unfortunately he was the heir of the Comte d’Aix and she was a simple knight’s daughter. His father would never agree to such a marriage.
Hurley was older than Marlowe but not as strong. Although it had both inner and outer walls, neither wall was of the height or thickness of Marlowe’s. In a sense, there was no true keep, the inner wall taking its place with the dwelling portions built almost as part of that wall. It made the hall very dark because there were no windows, only arrow slits, on the outer side and the windows on the inner side seldom received the sun. Half blinded by coming in out of the bright bailey, William asked the first person who hurried up to him where Mauger was.
A pretty, tinkling giggle and a rush of scent made William recoil a step. “My lord has gone out,” a little-girl voice told him.
“Where is the lady?” William asked harshly.
His clearing sight had confirmed what voice and scent hinted, that he was confronting Mauger’s most recent mistress. She was an exquisite thing, fairer than Alys and far more voluptuous, her bosom almost spilling from a too-low-cut bodice and most imperfectly covered by a thin, silk tunic. The loose cotte was too thin also, showing clearly the shape of hip and waist beneath.
William had no objection to women in seductive clothing, but he did not think a married gentleman’s home was the place for them. He was no saint and had never accorded even lip service to chastity. He had always been discreet in his infidelities, however. That he did not love his wife was no reason, to his mind, to affront her sensibilities or to be discourteous to her.
“Above, I suppose,” the girl tittered. “I am Emma. Can I do something for you?”
William’s hand half lifted to strike her for insolence, but her eyes were as empty of sense as a painted doll’s. Her French was execrable. Probably she had not meant to be vulgar or insolent.
“Go and ask whether Lady Elizabeth can spare Sir William of Marlowe a few minutes of her time,” he said in English.
“I am not a servant,” the girl pouted, still speaking in French, which she obviously felt was a mark of status.
That time William might well have hit her, but he was distracted by an older woman’s voice, exclaiming in pleasure. Lady Elizabeth’s maid, Maud, curtsied, snapped her fingers at another maidservant to bid her bring wine, and led William toward a chair, saying that Elizabeth would be down in a few minutes. Throughout she acted as if Emma was an indecent and unmentionable lump of dirt on the floor that everyone must try to avoid noticing to prevent embarrassment. The blank, open-mouthed confusion with which Emma regarded Maud nearly put William back into a good humor.
This was rapidly dispelled when Elizabeth, coming from the stairway, greeted Emma gravely and pleasantly. William stood up, feeling his face flush with rage. Elizabeth looked at him and smiled slowly. His breath caught. He knew she was not beautiful. Most men would not even have given her a first glance when Emma was by. She was too tall and far too thin, her small bosom hardly lifting her cotte and the full folds of the cloth obscuring what, if any, shape she had. But William knew her body had been well formed at thirteen and he did not believe that twenty years or two children had changed it. She was as lean and light as a boy, but far more graceful. Her every movement was an enchantment, as now, when, still smiling, she raised a single long finger to her lips.
William set his teeth against the furious remarks he had been about to make. Elizabeth took his hand and drew him toward a wall chamber. Emma’s lips pouted like a petulant child’s, and after a minute hesitation, she followed them. William half turned, his free hand rising to strike. Elizabeth tightened her grip on the hand she held.
“You cannot come with us, Emma,” she said gently. “Sir William is a very old friend, and he is about to say some very harsh things that will only hurt your feelings. You would not wish to hear them, I assure you.” Her lips twitched, restraining laughter, as Emma paused indecisively, trying to work that out. But she did not wait for the girl’s slow processes of thought to come to a conclusion. She drew William into the room she had chosen and shut the door.
“What the devil is wrong with you, Elizabeth?” William snarled when they were alone.
“There is nothing wrong with me. I am in excellent health,” she replied mischievously.
This room was better lit than the hall, and William had to struggle with his breathing again. Elizabeth watched him with a twinkle in her large, misty green eyes, a strange color like shallow water over pale golden sand. Her nose was a little too long, her mouth too wide for her thin face. She looked more like a naughty elf than a fairy princess. Her complexion was of the earth also, a warm brunette, and her hair of a nondescript brown, was very fine textured and curly. It was mostly hidden by her wimple now, but little ends had escaped here and there and curled deliciously around her face and forehead.
“Perhaps you cannot drive that creature out,” William said in a constricted voice, “but there is no reason for you to treat her with courtesy nor to endure her attempts to usurp your place.”
Dear William, Elizabeth thought, he always does exactly the right thing. Mauger had always had a woman or two in the keep but the others had been clever enough to keep out of the way. Emma was simply too stupid to do so. It did not mean anything, Elizabeth knew that. Nonetheless, the open exposure of the thing was painful, shameful. William’s fury had turned it funny, although there was nothing funny about the emotion that fueled his rage.
“She cannot usurp my place,” Elizabeth replied. “You know that is not Mauger’s intention.” She paused, watching William’s face, and then added softly, “Why should I not be courteous to her? She does me a great service.”
For a moment William stood and stared at her without answering. For ten years they had met frequently, sometimes they had been quite alone, as now, yet in all that time no single personal word had passed between them. Of course, William had never before been greeted by Mauger’s whore, acting as if she were the lady of the keep, either. William understood that his rage on Elizabeth’s behalf had broken through some wall of reserve she had built. It had driven her into making a clear statement of her own feelings about her husband. It was dangerous, horribly dangerous, but William did not care.
“It is disgusting,” he said, his voice shaking. “He could at least keep her in the village.”
Having already said too much, Elizabeth threw all caution and reason to the wind. “But Mauger likes his comfort. If it should be a chilly or wet night, he would not wish to ride out, and then… No! I prefer to have Emma here.”
Knowing he was mad and that he would bring his world crashing down around his ears, William took a step forward and pulled Elizabeth into his arms. He almost expected her to cry out or push him away, but she did not resist, allowing her head to fall back so that he could kiss her. And her mouth was as sweet, as warm and willing as it had been twenty years ago. Completely lost, heeding now only the siren song of his long love, William devoured her face, kissing eyes, cheeks, chin, and returning to her lips between. Elizabeth was no passive partner. Her mouth opened under his, inviting the invasion of his tongue, and she clutched him with one arm while she ran her other over his neck and shoulders, down his back, as if she wanted all of him included in the caress.
After a time, William pulled his mouth free. “Come to me, Elizabeth,” he begged. “I will honor you as you deserve, I will—”
She put a shaking hand gently over his mouth. “You are asking me to play Emma’s role in your home.”
“I have no wife,” he cried.
“You have a daughter. Should I ask Alys to give countenance to such a thing? Should you?”
“I love you—”
She silenced him again. “If you love me, do not ask me what I desire to give and cannot. William…no! Mauger does not deserve that.”
“Does not deserve—” he choked. “His behavior—”
“Is as much my fault as his,” Elizabeth interrupted. “In the beginning I hated him—hated the world—and made it all too plain. I was fortunate he did no worse than turn aside from me. He is not an unreasonable husband.” Then she smiled gently. “You know it is not possible, William. Mauger could not swallow such an affront. It would mean war.”
He did know, but he wanted her so much it was like a physical pain. “I could take you to Bix,” he said passionately.
A flame leapt in her eyes, then died. She pulled away, out of his arms completely. “We are both mad,” she sighed, “to torture ourselves this way. I thought we had passed the danger point years ago. I cannot think what made me say—but you caught me at a bad time. I am so sorry I have broken your peace, William. You know it is not possible for me to leave Hurley. Even if we could keep Mauger and Alys from knowing—and I do not believe that we could—I would lose Aubery and John. I love my sons. Also, I dare not leave Mauger alone in Hurley. So far, I have kept him from despoiling the estate beyond recovery, but if I were to leave… You do not know what Ilmer is like—the broken, cowering people, the wasted land… It is not all Mauger’s fault, of course. His father ruined the place before Mauger took hold of it, but he never learned anything from the old man except how to spend and to want. He has not the slightest notion of management. William…”
She touched his face gently, and he closed his eyes, breathed deeply, opened them. They were blank and bitter. William knew the call of duty. He had answered it many, many times against his will.
“I have had no peace since the day I lost you,” he said. “My heart is yours, my house is yours, my strength is yours. When you want any, or all, tell me, and they will be delivered.”
“I will take your heart, William. I have need of it, since you have always had mine.” She swayed toward him, then drew upright, away from the arms that opened to receive her. “What a fool I am. We must be more sensible, or it will be impossible for us to meet as friends. Please, William. It has meant so much to me to speak to you and to see you sometimes. If we cannot meet without behaving like idiots, I will lose even that. No, please…” He dropped his arms. This time it was Elizabeth who closed her eyes and breathed deep. “What brought you here today?” she asked quietly.
He turned away and walked to the slit window that opened to the north side of the outer ward. At first he did not answer, and Elizabeth could see the muscles working in his jaw. Finally he turned back and told her about Raymond’s arrival and Alys’s suspicions.
“I thought I would ask Mauger whether he had heard any rumor of other such placements or whether he heard anything about young Raymond himself.”
By the time he had got that far, William had calmed down and Elizabeth was also well under control. The flush had died from her cheeks and she was now paler than usual, but her eyes were quiet.
“He said nothing to me,” she remarked, “but there was no reason to mention a thing like that. He should be back soon, if you would like to wait.”
Struggle as she would, Elizabeth’s voice held a faint quiver. William swallowed, torn by emotions he was sure she shared. He could not bear to leave, but he could not bear to stay either. It would do no good to ask Elizabeth which she wanted him to do. To send him away would hurt, to keep him would hurt. Life hurt.
“I…are you on easy terms with Mauger just now?” William did not want to push Elizabeth into approaching her husband if the advent of Emma had caused a coolness between them.
“We are always on easy terms,” she replied. “Why not?”
William had started to move toward the door, but he stopped. Elizabeth bit her lip in chagrin. She had forgotten how much more perceptive William was than her husband. William had heard far more than the words she said. He had heard the reiteration of the fact that she did not care enough for Mauger to care when he brought a mistress home. Mauger would never have noticed the fact under the simple remark. Elizabeth, who knew her husband thought she was docile and stupid, took great pleasure in saying things with quite outrageous double meanings to him, knowing he would never catch them.
Before William could speak, Elizabeth shook her head and opened the door. On the threshold of the hall, she stopped so suddenly that William bumped into her. She stepped aside and gestured courteously for him to go forward, but her eyes warned. The boiling ferment inside William congealed. Sitting near the fireplace drinking from a handsome goblet, was Mauger.
Standing back, Elizabeth looked at both men with new eyes. In looks there
was no comparison. Handsome, William was not, except for those ridiculous
eyelashes. On the other hand, Mauger was handsome, definitely so. His hair
was true gold, his mouth well formed, his nose straight, his eyes a lovely
blue, innocent and guileless. Was there something in Mauger that repelled
her? No, it could not be that.
It was simply that she loved William.